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NOAA workers worry over Oregon move

NOAA says it's headed south, get used to it. Some of those who run the ships are anything but happy about it.
A NOAA deep-ocean explorer, the Mt. Mitchell

A NOAA deep-ocean explorer, the Mt. Mitchell NOAA

NOAA's decision move from Seattle to Newport Oregon was a "quality of life" choice, Capt. Michele Bullock told the press last summer. She's the amiable commander of NOAA's Pacific Marine Operations Center where the big research ships have been located for 50 years, but not much longer if NOAA has its way.

The evaluation team that chose Newport over Seattle, Port Angeles and Bellingham did so in part based on community resources such as housing, schools, hospitals, theaters, restaurants, and the cost of living; those factors, Capt. Bullock said, that will "make for a pleasant, small town way of life" for the employees. The team found rural Lincoln County, Oregon a better place to live than Seattle and Bellingham, university towns noted for their arts and music.

Since we posted a few stories about the move, we've had mail from NOAA civilian employees who are baffled and angry at the prospect. They have written Crosscut, questioning the quality of the life Capt. Bullock cheerfully predicts for the NOAA work force in a resort town of 10,000 that thrives on tourists in the summer and languishes in the winter. The letters we've seen so far come from civilian employees, most of them highly trained engineers and electronic technicians who maintain NOAA's Pacific research fleet, including the incredibly complex communications and computer systems of these floating science labs.

"We're the guys who keep the ships operating, stem to stern," one of the engineers told Crosscut. "The uniformed Corps comes aboard, we toss them the keys and hope they don't run into anything."

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had its beginnings in the early 1800s, when Thomas Jefferson directed the Coast and Geodetic Survey to survey the coast. Only 300 members wear NOAA's dress whites, but the whole agency projects an image of white hats. It administers the National Weather Service, providing the daily forecast that can save your day or your business and help your local TV weather guy seem smarter than he really is. NOAA's in charge of protecting our ocean fisheries, and its civilian scientists know more about the physical and biological nature of the oceans than anyone else on the planet. They're in the forefront of knowledge about drought, air pollution, climate change, and melting of the polar ice cap.

Members of the uniformed NOAA Corps are not supposed to talk to the press about the move to Newport. Neither are the civilian workers for that matter, but they do it anyway. Officially, all media queries are referred to Public Information Officer David Hall in Washington, DC, who isn't answering any questions.

The employees who are quietly in touch with Crosscut worry about the schools in Newport, the scarcity of housing, and the cuts in pay they will face when they move. Federal workers are paid according to the purported cost of living in the region where they're assigned. Seattle ranks high in cost and equivalently high in pay. Newport doesn't. The NOAA workers we heard from expect to lose as much as 7 percent in wages because, according to the federal formula, living's easier in a small town.

No doubt it costs less to live in Lincoln County than in the Seattle area. The U.S. Census Bureau's latest figures showed the median home value in Lincoln County to be about 62 percent of the King County median. However, as in many resort towns, there's a fluctuating scarcity of housing. And the NOAA employees writing Crosscut don't feel good about what they see and hear.

"Overpriced beach front condos," was one description, "then some really plain, really low-class houses, but not much in between. Middle class there is not what we think of as middle class in Seattle or in the suburbs."

NOAA's effect on housing seems certain to be dramatic. Dropping 175 new households into Lincoln County is, numerically speaking, like 7,169 new families arriving in King County and demanding homes and schools.


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Comments:

Posted Tue, Jan 19, 3:46 p.m. Inappropriate

And NOAA is part of the Department of Commerce that just happens to be administered by a certain former governor of our fair state?

Bob, I think your inquiries (and worker complaints) should be directed at a higher target!

Gary should be embarrassed by what you report.

Posted Tue, Jan 19, 5:39 p.m. Inappropriate

Some folks may choose to Live in Corvallis and environs and make the long trek daily to NOAA Newport. Housing costs more, but there's at least a college town with somewhat of an HP manufacturing presence to call home.

Remember, friends, no gifts of public monies are permitted in Washington state. In Oregon, that barrier doesn't exist in the same way so tax incentives and other sweetners can be offered.

Fairwell to Tarwaithe

MukMan

Posted Wed, Jan 20, 8:47 p.m. Inappropriate

We moved to Newport from Seattle 12 years ago and have loved it ever since. Yes, it is difficult to find a house worth buying, but there is nothing like living for a year in a rental and finding out what microclimate you want to live in and build a new one. We have an International Baccalaureate program in our high school, and many graduates that go to very expensive private schools when they graduate. There is an amazing amount of dance and a symphony, and jazz and lots of community theater. We have a film festival.

Change is difficult, but I would recommend giving it a chance- you might even like our little town on the edge of the continent!

Posted Thu, Jan 21, 5:31 a.m. Inappropriate

The above article omits one critical concern of current NOAA employees. Many of their spouses work, some at quite well paying jobs, and their options for similar or any employment in Newport will be severely limited if it exists at all. For that reason, if nothing else, it will be surprising if more than half of the projected 175 employees agree to move. Some ship-based people may stay aboard but leave their families in the Seattle area and commute on weekends during the 3-4 months of the year when the ships are not out to sea. Half of that time will likely be spent away from Newport as well since Newport doesn't have the necessary shipyard capacity for annual maintenance.

Filling any vacancies on ships based in Newport will be a real challenge. Currently NOAA is unable to fully staff its Seattle-based ships. Vacancy rates have been running about 10-15% in the past few years, and that's in a metropolitan area of nearly 3 million! Some entry level poisitions may be filled by Newport locals, easing unemployment there, but many of the more skilled seafaring positions of marine enginers, able-bodies seamen and survey technician will be hard to fill. Let's face it, as "charming" as small town Newport may be to some folks, the far greater number of activities in and around a major city like Seattle is much more attractive to potential employees (who tend to be younger) than the "dance, symphony, jazz and lots of community theater" offered by Newport. That doesn't even address the miserable Newport winter (when the ships are inport) weather when twice as much rain falls as in Seattle.

As if the personnel challenges of the NOAA move to Newport isn't enough, the lack of dockside repair facilities or drydock facilites necessary to support the four ships will require expensive transits to Seattle or Portland or the importing of such services from elsewhere (at much higher cost than locally available in Puget Sound). NOAA science will suffer too with the vast majority of the scientisits using the ships being based in Seattle. Face to face pre-cruise meetings will be less frequent and require more travel (at greater expense). Scientific equipment technical support from vendors will be more difficult and expensive and less timely without a major airport.

The NOAA procurement bureaucracy, which is an classic example of big government inefficiency and ineptness at its worse, can be blamed for this ill-advised decision. Ironically, the potential real loser in all of this is the town of Newport because unless extraordinary measures are taken, at considerable added expense to the American taxpayer, this relocation will fail within 5 years and Newport will be left with a $30 million infrastructure white elephant!

paski46

Posted Thu, Jan 21, 6:05 p.m. Inappropriate

Bob Simmons passes along this e-mailed comment from Steve Salisbury of Newport, who would like it included:
I was amazed at your article today. I have lived all over the United States. 

When my wife and I decided to leave San Diego and "retire", we looked at all parts of the world.  We kept coming back to this unique community of Newport, Oregon.  It represented a small town feel with all and more of the housing, cultural, educational and amenities any large metropolitan area offers.  That is of course if  you take away the ubiquitous Malls, crime, traffic, and resident indifference.  In addition to our International Bacalaureate Program, competitive sports programs, as well as a host  of cultural, entertainment, and outdoors activities, the City of Newport and the Central Oregon Coast represents a jewel of a place to live.  I  suggest your readers visit:  www.oregonbeachlife.com. 

All information, including great housing prices reside on that site.  Since you are from Bellingham, I guess you are understandably biased.  Bellingham is a nice community.  We ! are long time boaters.  However, with respect to all the amenities mentioned in your article, we ultimately chose Newport as it is a Big, Little City boasting a state of the art Performing Arts Center, Symphony Orchestra, theatre companies, dance companies, artists, authors, poets, musicians, scientists, educators, healthcare professionals, a class 1 Part 139 FAA certified airport and a port that rivals anything on the West Coast.  On the web site mentioned  above, www.oregonbeachlife.com, all of this information is readily and easily accessible.  You may wish to take a look and better inform your readers.

Posted Sun, Jan 24, 10:44 a.m. Inappropriate

One point that many are missing is that in a town of 10,000 people the needs NOAA and their employees will be a priority for the town. Seattle's attitude toward NOAA's needs and requirements during the bidding process should tell a lot to the people of NOAA just where NOAA rated with Seattle. NOAA's arrival in Newport is consistent with what Newport has aspired to be for the last thirty years, that is a a research town dedicated to the the study and health of the environment. I think you will eventually see that NOAA's relocation here is only the beginning.

"Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."

nptdz

Posted Sun, Jan 24, 8:50 p.m. Inappropriate

I understand the concern of family members having to pick up and move. I'm a Navy brat, and throughout my childhood had to depart familiar schools, friends, and environs only to find new friends, and new and wonderful opportunities. Those who move to Newport will first of all find a community that welcomes them with wide open arms. Newport residents (and those in the surrounding cities) are eager to welcome NOAA families and do all they can to make them feel at home. Neighboring city Toledo was so proud of their city, they applied to be a 2009 All American City, and were chosen as a finalist. Those who come will also find a community that cares about its schools and its children, has a vibrant arts and recreational community, and is working hard to ensure all family needs are met, whether through child care, hospital services, or higher education.

We moved to Newport three years ago, and have been genuinely pleased with our decision. The small community is so accessible. I volunteer as a mentor at our high school and my wife serves as a docent at our aquarium. Like someone else posted, we rented at first, and bought into the area that suited us, into a nice four bedroom three bath home. There are both established family neighborhoods and growing ones, such the housing area now developing in South Beach.

Newport may be a small, rural coastal community, but it is a caring community and one that is surprisingly rich in spirit.

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